Growing up, it happens to us all; it shapes you are, but it often sucks too. Films about this subject have been around forever, with the 80s probably being the most notable decade for hits like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, Pretty in Pink just to name a few. They were mainstream films that got into the heart of teenage life, and maybe understood teenagers better than they understood themselves. Personally speaking, that statement held up for me when I spent my teens catching up with these films, and still speaks to me at the ripe old age of 22. The genre has never died out, with many more coming of age films hitting cinemas year after year, taking different form and tackling the topic of growing up in many different ways. As far as the last few years are concerned, none have made my heart feel as full as Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are inseparable best friends; a pair of forward thinking, high achieving young women who have dedicated everything they have to their education to secure their future, they find themselves confronted with the horrible truth on the last day of high school that they did things all wrong. Where they thought that they were doing better than their classmates, the people they assumed just didn’t try at all, they were actually missing out on all the fun whilst everyone else was having the best of both worlds. Desperate not to have done high school wrong, Molly convinces Amy to come with her to a wild last party, and thus begins an insane journey of personal growth.
The high school stereotypes are a staple of teen films; the jocks, the geeks, the goths, the theatre kids, the goody two-shoes, the “sluts”, the bullies…You’ve seen them a hundred times. Booksmart isn’t interested in playing the same old record for you to chuckle at, it actively takes a stand against them and shows you that we’re not all so different. Molly’s character arc, from an over-achiever who looked down on everyone to finally seeing everyone as her equal, is beautiful. It breaks down the issues of class, gender and status, and shows us we all deserve to have fun and do well. This is something that everyone needs to know. Beanie Feldstein handles the transition beautifully in a stunning performance.
The character that really stole my heart is Amy; shy, awkward, but caring and sweet, she carries a lot of the film’s most emotional moments. I can’t even begin to describe the beauty in Kaitlyn Dever’s performance. Amy has a crush on skater girl Ryan, and the way Dever plays these scenes is outstanding. Her face has this innocence to it, and a look of total admiration, like she’s seeing the most beautiful thing in the world. When Ryan lays her arm in Amy’s legs, she can barely contain her happiness. It’s adorable, and watching her confidence grow over the course of the film is immensely satisfying. I’m 100% serious when I say that Dever should have been in the awards conversation, and it’s a crime she wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe at least.
Booksmart gives life to the caricatures that have populated this genre for decades, with characters like Hope (Diana Silvers) and Annabelle (Molly Gordon) – derisively nicknamed Triple A – are given the chance to shed their less than perfect reputations for a bit more real character underneath. The film takes the time to take you beyond the surface, the way people really feel, and the way that people’s words hurt. Billie Lourd knocks it out of the park as the eccentric rich girl Gigi, who’s actions are erratic but even she gets a look beyond the outside, as does her best friend Jared (Skyler Gisondo). But this doesn’t just apply to the supporting characters, because Booksmart doesn’t shy away from the burden of overbearing friendships. Molly and Amy are inseparable, but it’s not perfect, and they don’t always get how the other is feeling and it’s incredibly powerful to see the way these problems can manifest unhealthily. Dever and Feldstein have the most desirable chemistry for all situations, and the sharp script and even the sound design are perfect for sending home the more crushing moments of their friendship.
When the film wants to hit emotions, it hits hard; it’s never just about making you laugh, or making you cry, it’s about making you feel it with your whole body. The tight, witty humour is constant and always effective, the soundtrack amplifies the feelings and atmosphere of each scene, the film takes twists and turns that throw you off completely, and witnessing the development of two very loveable characters to something that they weren’t before is enough to make my heart explode. If it doesn’t, then a certain shot of Molly at the end will certainly finish me off.
Booksmart is one of, if not the best this genre has had to offer in the last decade. It’s enlightening, hilarious, heart-breaking, and overwhelming with two perfect performances leading an expertly executed script. Olivia Wilde has done a stunning job on her directorial debut and I can’t wait to see more from her.
Booksmart is out on Netflix now